The Marvel Cinematic Universe returns to theaters for the first time since Spider-Man: No Way Home revived the theatrical box office. The multiverse traversing film returned familiar faces to the franchise, and fans turned out in droves. The final box office crossed $1.8 billion worldwide and over $800 million in the US alone. The financial and critical success of the film leaves a long shadow, one which Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness are tasked with overcoming. While the latest adventure of the fan-favorite sorcerer delivers some incredible highlights, the final product leaves more questions than answers for the franchise’s future.
Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness picks up months after the events of No Way Home and WandaVision have concluded. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) wakes from a nightmare before attending the wedding of Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). When an interdimensional creature terrorizes teenager America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), Strange and Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong) step in to assist. America reveals she possesses the ability to traverse the multiverse, even if she does not know how to control her power. Strange consults Avenger Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) to strike up an alliance, only to realize his greatest threat comes from someone he considers an ally.
While Multiverse of Madness often stumbles, the choice to bring Sam Raimi back to the director’s chair instantly improves the feature. Raimi, best known as the director of the Evil Dead franchise and Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films, brings his penchant for visual storytelling from the word go. This Doctor Strange film gets far gorier, bloodier, and weirder than much of the MCU. His direction opens the door to the quick-zoom, oddly angled shots that create a freneticism. Along for the ride are frequent collaborators, including Bruce Campbell and Danny Elfman. Each gets their moment in the sun and, in Elfman’s case, a unique opportunity to affect the film’s action. The Multiverse of Madness soars when Raimi showcases the freedom to explore the material through his lens.
A possession sequence, a massacre, and a poorly lit sewer chase all scream Raimi. Yet many other moments of the film are bogged down in endless exposition. Far from the first Marvel film to lose momentum this way, there are precise moments of the story that grind the movie to a halt. The screenplay from Michael Waldron leaves a lot to be desired here, in part because of his success with Loki in 2021. That series handled a multiverse with stakes, whereas this one simply created a New York with some extra flowers. There is nothing as inventive as the many Lokis we witnessed in that series, let alone a world as unique as the TVA.
There are so few flourishes Raimi is forced to carry the weight of the film in his visually explorative scenes. However, his trademark skills are actively submarined when the screenplay embraces the “Tell, don’t show” mantra. Waldron’s screenplay subsists on a collection of action sequences strung together by exposition dumps. In addition to an ultimately meaningless introduction of the Illuminati group from the comics, these expositions inform us about relationships between characters. We’re told to believe Strange and his love interest Christine are together in nearly every universe. We never see the chemistry there to believe that.
The most egregious issue at play in the handling of Wanda. Unfortunately, Marvel makes little effort to tell a story that makes sense within the context of the canon. The film assumes you have watched all 9 episodes of WandaVision, and if you have not, her quest to reunite with her children comes from left field. That said, watching WandaVision does not help much. This Wanda is far from the version we last saw in the MCU.
At the end of WandaVision, Wanda must say goodbye to her husband and children. After all, these three individuals were created through her powers. To do so, she drains the life force and free will of a small town. She chooses to sacrifice her life with her created family to return free will to the people. In her final moments with her children, she thanks them for choosing her as a mother and confesses her love to her husband. Before she flies away with the Darkhold, a book of incredible power, she understands they will see her as the villain. We later find her continuing to research with the Darkhold, and she hears her children call out to her.
This context is needed to understand where we last saw Wanda because almost none of this information is present in the film. A quick mention of Westview between Strange and Wanda passes, and Strange seems unwilling to push her on the event beyond knowing she created her children. However, in-between WandaVision and the start of this film, Wanda has broken bad. Driven by her need to reunite with her children, she goes on the warpath.
In a vacuum, her actions seem reasonable. After all, any parent would willingly put their life on the line for their child. However, the MCU has a problem defining its women outside of motherhood. Black Widow saw herself as a monster because she could not have children. Wanda kidnaps an entire town to become one. Frigga is defined exclusively through her relationships with Thor and Loki, while Ying Li must give up her powers to become Shang-Chi’s mother.
Combining this recurring issue with recent news regarding the likelihood that Roe v. Wade will be overturned, Marvel reinforces a dangerous message. Many women in the MCU only find purpose and drive through their families. If taking this away from them turns them into vengeful sociopaths capable of murdering anyone (including other children), Marvel creates a problematic narrative that women are defined by motherhood. For a company that gave itself a self-indulgent “women of Marvel” montage in Endgame after only having a single film focusing on a female protagonist, it is clear they believe they’ve done enough.
Despite these criticisms of the character motivation, Olsen delivers career-best work. She almost overcomes the issues with the story because of the pathos gushing through in her frame. She expertly plays to Raimi’s camera, making her one of the scariest creatures he’s ever filmed. Olsen delivers one of the great villainous turns of the MCU, despite poor writing, and once again proves her immense talent.
The rest of the cast gets their moments, but no one ever approaches Olsen. If you are excited for Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, you should thank Raimi and Olsen. Everything else in the film is serviceable, if not forgettable. Wong continues to be undervalued by the MCU, delivering another fun performance but receiving no character development. Gomez shines in some scenes but mostly walks a predictable narrative path. Popping in for an adventure in the MCU can be highly gratifying, but Multiverse of Madness leaves its characters underdeveloped, and underwritten, and wants us to subsist on cameos. As the MCU continues to create the least creative multiverse imaginable, they fumble the bag on what could have been a turning point for the franchise.
Grade: 6 out of 10